Lawrence city leaders recently received a detailed report on the Lawrence economy and the local job market. It wasn’t a rosy report, and Lawrence Mayor Rob Chestnut said, “All this continues to emphasize the need to diversify our economy. I think it is underplayed that Lawrence would be a great community for more professional and regional office jobs.”
Lawrence has suffered significant job losses in numerous categories with “accommodation” and “food services” fields taking the largest hits.
In years past, Lawrence was looked upon as a leader in attracting new industry and business. Young men and women living elsewhere in Kansas, or throughout the country, actively contacted local residents to inquire about job opportunities and to see whether any Lawrence business owners might be looking for able, enthusiastic young people who would like the opportunity to buy into the firm.
Lawrence was a place where young people wanted to live. Kansas University was a large draw, as were many “livability” factors. Also, the nearness of Kansas City and Topeka, along with the bright outlook for Lawrence’s future made this an exciting place to live.
Unfortunately, this feeling of enthusiasm and optimism seems to have died down. Lawrence is not the “hot spot” that it was in past years. Lawrence continues to be a great place to live, but the spirit and enthusiasm have dimmed.
Just recently, a group of downtown business owners and operators gathered to discuss what could be done to revitalize and strengthen the downtown area. There has been concern about the growing number of restaurants and bars in the area as opposed to new or expanded retail businesses. Lawrence Chamber of Commerce leaders are trying to get a handle on what needs to be done to kickstart the economy, promote and develop sound growth and help create new jobs. The chamber is organizing a well-planned program Thursday night to zero in on these challenges.
Many people are becoming increasingly concerned about what appears to be a stagnant Lawrence. And they yearn for past years when KU played a strong role in the city’s growth.
In years past, officials of the Kansas Department of Commerce, as well as in other state offices, were quick to recommend Lawrence to out-of-state companies looking for possible building sites in the state. It was a good relationship! Lawrence officials were able to present good, solid cases for Lawrence as an ideal location. Members of the site selection teams were pleased with what they saw and learned about Lawrence, making Kansas officials who recommended the city look good.
Unfortunately, in recent years, Lawrence has been unable to provide good sites for a number of prospective manufacturing or warehouse companies. We don’t have a sufficient stockpile of land zoned for business and/or industrial development, lots that can accommodate large operations.
A recent story in the Topeka Capital-Journal told of current efforts by Topeka leaders to acquire additional sites for industrial development. Members of Topeka’s Joint Economic Development Organization and a private group called Go Topeka have done an excellent job of putting together various “park” sites for development. The city approved a tax plan several years ago that has provided millions of dollars for economic development, and part of this has been used to acquire large sites for industrial development.
Topeka officials say they are in fierce competition with Wichita, Oklahoma City and Little Rock, Ark., which also are on the “short lists” of places where companies consider locating operations that create new jobs. Other top competitors, according to Topeka officials, include Columbia, Mo., Springfield, Mo., and Jonesboro, Ark.
Where is Lawrence in the picture? Not too many years ago, Topeka residents and officials complained Lawrence was landing more attractive industry and business than Topeka and that something needed to be done to get Topeka into a strong, effective competitive position.
These days, Topeka officials told the newspaper, they are at a disadvantage because they don’t have enough available industrial space in Topeka or Shawnee County. They report Wichita has 1,500 available industrial acres; Columbia, Mo., 957 acres; Springfield, Mo., 498 acres; Jonesboro, Ark., 1,280 acres; Little Rock, Ark., 2,599 acres; and Oklahoma City, 315 acres. Topeka has 125 available acres and should have 919 acres if it is to be competitive with other cities.
Lawrence has 123 acres of land ready for industrial development.
Even though Lawrence is a great place to live, is there any question why the city seems to be off the beaten path of site selection officials looking for ideal building locations for a wide range of companies? Its inventory of good, shovel-ready sites is poor. Along with this is the reputation of Lawrence being a difficult and costly place to build. These two factors handicap Lawrence and its efforts to attract industry and businesses with well-paying jobs.
The Lawrence of today is paying the price for the Lawrence of yesterday, when the no-growth philosophy was so dominant. It will take some time, and leaders with courage and vision, to allow Lawrence to recover and regain its position as one of Kansas’ most progressive and leading cities.
According to the recent Topeka report, one of the things Lawrence must do, if it wishes to remain competitive, is to secure more well-located land for industrial development.